Caleb was the first to see the dead opossum. He pointed at it with his grimy finger.
“Oooh! Lookie there Josh!” His voice was high pitched, and he sounded as if it were a marvel that such a thing could be near them. The decay crawled across the road, as if it were a waypoint for travelers. Josh quickened his steps.
“Come on, don’t you touch it,” Josh cautioned Caleb. He grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the side of the road.
“You know the Indians say the spirit stays around the animal. It doesn’t leave. It stays like a ghost,” he said slowly. He hoped to put the hint of fear into Caleb, but Caleb wasn’t an easy sell.
“Come on. I ain’t gonna believe that. They ain’t no such thing as ghosts,” he convinced himself.
“Don’t touch it. If you do the spirit will stick with you. Then you’ll have a time trying to get rid of it.”
Caleb glanced back at the carcass, oozing filthy blood and organs in a butterfly shaped stain. He looked up at his brother and sniffed. Josh could tell he was starting to believe it.
“Josh, you think Daddy will be coming home this weekend?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He’s been in two month now. Last time he was in it wasn’t that long.”
Josh wiped the sweat from his forehead and then rubbed his jeans. Maybe he won’t ever come home, he thought. Maybe it was going to get better. It already had.
“I don’t know if I want him to come home. I like visiting him,” Caleb said “We kind of know where he is and what he’s doing.”
Josh looked briefly at his smaller brother and frowned. It might be better, but he could never be sure. He had started to sleep. Their mother had actually gone into work for six weeks straight now. She stopped crying three weeks ago, and even gave him ten dollars today.
He knew they would stop at the Valu-Rite and get chips and a drink on the way back home. Maybe they could stand under the awning and feel the air conditioning burst out of the door when the grandmothers walked in and out after buying the cheapest chicken in town. He could pocket what they had left over and save it for another time. His mother might give him another ten dollars then, and they could actually stop off and get hamburgers and hotdogs. Or maybe he could buy some hamburger meat and some buns. He and Caleb could go to the creek and fish, build a fire, and grill hamburgers. It would be like they were camping.
“I’m hot,” Caleb moaned, bringing Josh’s eyes back to the road. He realized he had been staring at the ground as he walked.
Two small, yipping, masses of fur came out of the brush next to the road. Two more followed behind them. The puppies scurried along the ditch and began to roll into each other. A larger dog came out of the brush. Her teats were sagging, almost touching the ground, and she moved lethargically. She was already tired of the burden nature thrust upon her without her consent or knowledge. Josh eyed her suspiciously.
The dog began to wag her tail and contorted her body into a submissive posture with her head bowed to the ground. Josh let Caleb go to her.
She had fur matted in mud and pine needles, and Caleb pulled back a hound that was coated in dirt and fleas as he rubbed her back. Josh could hear her groan with relief as his brother stroked her back.
“Good girl. Good girl,” he murmured with each movement down the length of her body.
“We should take her home with us on the way back,” he looked at Josh with a plea.
“Can’t. What about her pups?”
“We’ll take ‘em too.”
“How’re we gonna take care of a bunch of dogs, Caleb? You can’t just grab up a bunch of strays and take them home. You gotta feed ‘em, and take the dogs to a vet. That costs a bunch. Just leave ‘em.”
“But they’re gonna die Josh!”
Caleb’s jaw began to clench and tears broke loose. Josh pulled him away from the dog. The puppies congregated around the mother as she reclined in the ditch, with her tail still wagging. Josh felt one of the pups and picked it up. A boy.
It had a distended stomach and its fur was dingy from being outside sleeping under leaves and dirt. At least they have their mother, he thought. She would feed them and teach them until it was time for them to be out on their own.
“Look, she’s gonna take care of them. They need her and she needs them. We’ll stop at the store and get them some food on the way back,” he said in a consoling tone. Caleb’s tears stopped, his jaw released, and they continued walking.
They found themselves in town and passing the Valu-Rite. It was barely after ten o’ clock, but the late summer air was clinging to them. The grandmothers were wading into the store, pushing empty shopping carts and sorting coupons. They were clad in brightly colored dresses that reminded Josh of bathrobes.
“Come on! Let’s get a drink,” he said as he veered them off course. They wandered into the store, both of them sighing in relief as they marched to the drink cooler. Hand scrawled signs beckoned half off and buy one get one. Josh grabbed two drinks from the large cooler and took them to the counter, Caleb trailed him.
After paying for the drinks they stepped outside and continued on toward the other side of town. Along the way they gulped from the bottles. Josh replaced the cap each time, but Caleb had thrown his as far as could when they reached the sidewalk. He downed the cola and belched. Josh was then obliged to share what was left with him.
They reached the sheriff’s office and went to the front door. A handful of overweight deputies were leaning against a wall talking to a skinny woman seated at a desk. They all looked at the boys when they invaded the room.
“Hey honey. Can I help y’all?” She cooed with familiarity.
“We’re here for visitation,” Josh said as he fished in his front pocket. He pulled a crumpled piece of paper out and unfolded it.
“Randy Cunnignham, you need the inmate number?” he asked.
“Naw,” she said “Y’all can go to the visitation room. They’ll be out in about ten minutes. He’s probably just now getting back from laundry.”
Josh looked around for a door to walk through and saw his brother staring at one of the deputies, fixated on his size and his gun. The deputy smirked slightly and pointed to a hallway.
“That way, son. They’ll check you in,” he bellowed. He turned and went back to the conversation with the skinny girl.
They went to the visitation room. A tall deputy with white hair had them empty their pockets. Neither of them had much of anything, other than the few dollars. Josh pocketed the money and the deputy ushered them into the room with long tables and bench seats.
“You reckon he’s been in any fights yet?” Caleb whispered as they sat down.
“Shhh. You don’t talk about that in here.” He looked around the room to see if anybody else heard them. The only other people in the visitation area, besides the deputy, were two old grandmothers wearing the dresses that looked like bathrobes and a younger woman holding a baby. All of them spaced out like satellites in an orbit.
After a few minutes the door at the far end of the room opened and inmates dressed in muted khaki jumpsuits shuffled in. Each of them were handcuffed in front. A deputy strode in behind them, and took up a position on the wall as he scanned the room.
“Hey boys!” their father called, his voice cracking and high pitched. Josh thought he sounded different, as if he were lost and was asking for directions. He and his brother remained rooted in the bench.
Their father grunted as he lifted his legs over the bench to sit at the table. Josh noticed he was clean shaven and his eyes were clear. Caleb leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. Josh did not move.
“Your Momma didn’t want to come?”
“She can’t. She’s working today,” said Caleb.
“Good. That’s o.k. She probably don’t want to see me anyway,” their father caught a sob in his throat.
“So, has everything been alright?” he asked, looking at Josh.
“I guess,” he shrugged his shoulders and looked around the room to break his gaze.
“Yeah? How about school? Y’all getting ready for school?”
Caleb began chattering, and Josh became grateful for it. Josh only had to offer replies to one or two things. He felt the shame rush into his brain. Then he felt the anger billowing inside.
“So, what you boys gonna do today?”
“We saw some dogs on the way here. Josh says we can get them some food on the way back since they don’t have nobody taking care of them,” blurted Caleb.
Their father leaned back in thought. “You don’t need to do that. Money is tight fella’s. Don’t go wasting it on no dog.”
Josh glared at his father. He chewed the words and then let his anger settle. He wanted to shout something about how much better things were becoming, and that he didn’t think him being locked up was such a bad thing after all. He looked around as Caleb continued chattering in his squeaky voice.
“So, I was thinking, maybe if you guys had a little money or something you could put it on my account. I was wanting some cigarettes or something,” he said.
“We ain’t got no money today,” Josh declared. He felt Caleb rise up so he kicked his foot.
“When we come back next week we’ll bring you some. Maybe ten dollars,” he offered. He looked at Caleb and saw him move to protest so he put his hand on his leg to quiet him. Caleb relaxed.
“Oh, that’s alright, son. Just if you can.”
The deputy on the wall looked at his watch and glared out at the room. The baby sitting on the young woman’s lap began to wail and she started to bounce it in her arms. The deputy coughed and stared at her. The man across from her began to sob.
“Please baby!” he moaned.
The deputy coughed again and shifted on the wall so he could be seen by the grimacing inmate. Their father looked over at the man with a look of pity.
“He’s never been in,” he whispered “So he’s just now getting hit with it.”
He looked at Josh and said “Not like us though, huh?”
“We’re old hands at this,” he sighed.
“It’ll be alright Daddy,” Caleb patted his father’s hands resting on the table.
“You bet,” he looked at Josh pleading. The deputy looked at his watch and coughed again as the man let out a moan.
“Well, y’all had best be getting back. I got sentencing on Tuesday,” he said.
Caleb looked at Josh for an answer.
“What do you think you’ll get?” Josh stood up and took Caleb’s hand.
“Don’t know. If your Momma comes probably a year or more,” he rose from the bench with his shoulders slung in defeat.
“But you’ll be here, right Daddy?” Caleb asked.
The other inmates began to get up as if it were the only thing left to do. All of the talking was over. The man with the younger woman put his head on the table still crying. She walked to the door and stood with the infant braced against her hip.
“I don’t know. They could send me to Jackson since I’ll be sentenced.”
They would not be walking to Jackson to visit him. Josh knew their mother would not drive that far, even if the car could make it. Even if she had the money for gas. Caleb looked lost and hopeless.
“Don’t worry Daddy. We’ll visit you there,” he said.
Their father laughed.
“Y’all be good, and don’t go giving your mother a hard time now,” he said. The advice went away as Josh pierced his father’s eyes.
“We’ll be fine,” he said. He pulled Caleb to the door with the young woman and the grandmothers. The deputy opened the door and escorted them out.
The street was covered in a haze. The air clung to the sidewalk and the humidity latched onto their shirts. Josh was beginning to wish he had worn shorts. They walked in silence for a long time.
“You think Daddy will be sent to Jackson?”
“I don’t know. Does it matter?” Josh felt as if he were taller, and the air were not as heavy.
“If he does we won’t be able to visit him,” Caleb said.
“It doesn’t matter. He’ll be alright,” he said.
“Heck, we’ll be alright,” Josh raised his hands in mock joy.
“Look, mom is workin’, ain’t nobody yelling and screaming. Things are better this way,” he said.
Caleb’s face tensed in concentration and then acceptance.
“I guess you’re right,” he confessed.
They were in front of the Valu-Rite. All of the grandmothers had called a retreat and were back in their kitchens with the cheapest chicken in town and half off coupon deals. They were probably heating canned beans and slicing tomatoes for lunch. Josh was feeling hungry now.
“Hey, let’s get them dogs some food, Josh!” Caleb burst out.
They had enough money for a cheap bag of dog food left over. Josh put his hand in his pocket to feel the bills, which were becoming damp from sweat.
“Right. I don’t care what he says anyway,” Josh said decisively.
They darted into the store and scouted down the pet food aisle. Josh calculated how much he had and weighed the options. He had never had to feed a dog before, and he wasn’t sure what constituted what was good or bad as far as strays were concerned. He found a large bag and saw that it would take up just about all of the money left over. He heaved it from the shelf and walked over to the counter to pay.
“Don’t tell mom about this, o.k.?” He cautioned Caleb.
“No way. Let’s hurry though.”
They walked out of the store with Josh shouldering the bag for the first half mile. He began to tire so they stopped halfway from where they saw the dogs.
“You reckon we can come back next week?” Caleb asked.
“Yeh. Might as well.”
“You think maybe we could bring them dogs something to eat on the way to visit Daddy and on the way back?” Caleb shuffled his feet as if he were going to erupt in a frenzy and run.
“We could. They might not even be there anymore.” Josh began to hope they would always be there.
They continues walking, and Josh felt the strain of the unbalanced bag of dog food on his shoulders. As they neared the ditch where the puppies had been playing Josh began to scan the trees and bushes on both sides of the road. He did not see any signs of the mother or her pups.
They neared the dead opossum and saw that more cars had mangled its remains. It was now completely flat. Crows had picked the entrails off of the road and drug them off to devour elsewhere. The odor was fading as the decay began to mingle with the hot tar.
Josh became concerned. He looked at Caleb, who was still smiling, but not looking at the dead animal. The sweat under his arms began to tickle and itch as it trailed down his ribcage. He began to wish he had not spent the money on dog food and desperately wanted something cold to drink.
The mother was laying on her back, with her limbs twisted in a grotesque shape. Blood stains along her jaw, which was open showing bloody teeth and gums. Two of the pups were near her in the road, flattened and bloody. Their heads crushed.
Caleb began to sob. Josh felt weakened, as if the trouble had been for nothing. He looked around but did not see the other two puppies.
“You stand over there out of the road,” he told Caleb as he sat the bag down next to him. Josh tromped around the area beyond the dead mother straining his ears. He listened for whelps and cries, however faint, but could not hear anything. As he walked along the ditch he stooped to the ground and peered along the tangled vines and weeds. He could feel a tear creep into one of his eyes, and then another. He wiped it away, thinking it was sweat. Finally he heard a yelp. He saw the dirty clump of fur scurrying around near the culvert.
Josh walked over to the puppy and picked him up. He thought it might have been the one he held earlier. But they had all been so dirty, like discarded rags.
“Where’s your other brother, boy?” he asked soothingly. The puppy let out a short howl and yelp. He walked around looking for the remaining puppy but could not find it. He tucked the squirming mongrel under his arm and trudged through the weeds back to his brother.
“Here,” he said handing the puppy to Caleb “you keep him while I do something.” He tore the bag open and scooped out some of the dog food and stuffed it into his pockets. He ran back across the road to where he found the puppy and emptied his pockets into the ditch.
“All ready?” he asked as he hurried back.
Caleb was still sobbing as he cuddled the puppy.
“What about the other one? You gonna find it?” He looked at Josh with only a single tear in his eye.
“Not today,” he said “Maybe next time.”
“Yeah,” he gripped the torn bag with food spilling out of it. “Next week. We can only save one today,” he said as he led the way back home.
© 2014 Jason H. Cook All Rights Reserved